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A grandmother recently told me about her granddaughter, almost 6, who shoplifted a small toy from a toy store. Her parents told her what a terrible thing it was to steal and how unfair it was to the people who owned the store who need the money to put food on the table and must work for it just like Mommy and Daddy must do. They made her go back to the store to give it back (and in private told the people in the store not to go easy on her). My granddaughter said. “I stole this and I’m very sorry and I will never do it again.” Her parents asked if they had to watch her from now on or did she learn her lesson. They are worried they have a future delinquent in their home.

Wow! In my opinion this was parental overkill! Of course they do not have a delinquent in their midst, just a little girl going through a normal developmental phase.

Until about age 6 children do not yet have a clear sense of what belongs to them and what doesn’t. This is especially true when it comes to toys. Preschoolers quite often take toys that belong to other children because they want to play with them. The parent’s job is not to label this as deviant behavior but merely say, “Jenny, that doll is not yours. Give it back to Sally.”

After age 6 children have a pretty good sense of what belongs to them and what doesn’t. But they become involved in impressing peers and showing off, and develop pride in their possessions and collections of things. Now, deliberately taking something from a friend or a store becomes more common. And it is truly stealing because they know the object does not belong to them.

The first stealing incident usually takes place around age 7, and most children only try this once or twice. Some children become habitual stealers and need help. These are usually children who feel deprived for one reason or another, are less popular than classmates, or are acting out hostility or anger.

When dealing with a school-age child who has taken something from a friend or a store, the parents have a job to do. They must make sure the child understands that stealing is wrong.

The process is simple and straightforward with only three steps.

1) Don’t ask the child for explanations, forget about all the “why did” and “how could” you do this. Merely state that you know the theft occurred.

2) Say that stealing is wrong. Use simple explanations. “Stealing is wrong. You would not want anyone to take your doll. So it’s wrong for you to take this doll.” The child does not need a lecture or sermon on the starving children of ripped-off store owners. Never imply that your child is bad, just that he or she did a bad thing.

3) Establish restitution. See to it that the child takes the object back to the friend or store. Tell the child to apologize and say he or she will never do it again. Accompany the child but don’t tell the owner of the object to be cruel or unduly harsh. It’s OK for the child to feel ashamed but the child should not feel devastated by the parent or the shop owner.

You see, there is such a thing as a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we overdo it in our parental zeal to be sure we nip future delinquency in the bud, the child may internalize the feeling that he or she is bad. The child may think it’s hopeless to even try to be good — “my parents think I’m a terrible child.” Instead you want your child to internalize that THE BEHAVIOR OF STEALING IS WRONG.

The parents in today’s letter did the right thing in saying that stealing is wrong and establishing restitution. But I think they said and did too much.

I understand where they are coming from. It’s a shock for parents to realize that their adorable child can commit an egregious antisocial act like stealing. But in their shock they forgot their little girl is not yet 6 and they weren’t thinking about the developmental stages children go through in learning what belongs to others.

All of us parents must guard ourselves against thinking that one bad act means the child is headed for a life of crime. We get worried reading about juvenile crime and are so concerned about bringing our children up right that we sometimes forget we are dealing with little kids.

It is wrong for parents to ignore or fail to deal with an antisocial act like stealing. It is also wrong for parents to overdo their response. The idea is to have the child understand she committed a bad act. You do not want her to think she is a bad person who has to be watched closely in stores. The goal is for parents to give their children a sense that they both expect and trust them to do the right thing — and if they don’t they’ll help them learn how.